Alberta writer Lauralyn Chow opens her debut short story collection Paper Teeth with a description of a Chinese restaurant. There’s an English menu, a Chinese menu, and an “unwritten menu of non-replicable Chinese dishes, food that no other table is served,” setting the table for Chow’s humourous exploration of family tensions. The interconnected stories in Paper Teeth follow the Lee family of Edmonton. Unlike their parents, the Lee kids—Lizzie, Pen, Tom, and Jane—never learned Chinese, opening a communication gap that widens throughout their lives.
The ten stories, each named after a Chinese restaurant menu item, provide brief, funny glimpses into daily life with the Lees. Although the stories span from the 1920s to present day, Chow eschews the familiar tack of the multi-generational immigrant epic. Instead, she offers amusing and poignant snippets in her rambling comical prose. Chow’s stories resist a linear narrative of the “immigrant experience” by dropping us into the middle of familial conflicts with no discernible beginning or end. Time bends and loops throughout the stories as Chow telescopes events from the future and past in her frequent asides. The result is a cluster of stories that use gentle humour to negotiate family ties, religion, race, and cultural difference.
While food doesn’t feature prominently in every story, it often functions to highlight and bridge the characters’ cultural divides. In one story, a grown-up Jane dreads hosting her overbearing Auntie Li-Ting and her smelly medicinal bandages. Jane resigns herself to her aunt’s presence with the appealing prospect of a Chinese cooking lesson, but Li-Ting subverts Jane’s expectations with an entirely different meal. In another story, Jane begins to reconcile her fraught relationship to religion and language by recalling the commensal experience of a feast at the Chinese United Church.
Linked short stories present a unique challenge. While the format frees Chow from the narrative cohesion required by novels, the irregular structure works against her collection as well. While we get fairly rounded portraits of Jane, Lizzie, and their parents, the scant exploration of the other characters feel less like strategic omissions and more like lost opportunities. Yet by homing in on the domestic eccentricities of the Lee family, Chow manages to tell a rich story, however uneven, through small moments. With unique humour and style, Paper Teeth introduces us to a fresh voice in Canadian short fiction.
Alissa McArthur is a member of the Room editorial board. She holds an MA in English literature from UBC and lives and writes in Toronto.